Grief is a terrible and yet necessary thing. It has become much more common over the last few months as we’ve all lost friends, family members and pillars of the community and must still navigate some sort of daily routine in the strangest of the times. The news that Papa Bouba Diop had passed away aged just 42 hit particularly hard this afternoon: footballers have ridiculously short careers and, in totality, they should be just a fraction of a well-lived life. Diop, who packed so much into his own footballing story, deserved to have much more time to enjoy.
I remember being astonished – and extremely excited – that Fulham had won the race to sign Diop in the summer of 2004. The rumoured £6m fee seemed like a snip, especially since he had exploded into the consciousness of the footballing world with that special goal as Senegal shocked France in the World Cup and followed that up with some fine performances for Lens. He added a much-needed physical presence in midfield for a Fulham side that were sometimes far too easily brushed aside and a little passive in their play, but there was plenty of finesse to go with his fortitude as well.
Diop’s first season at Craven Cottage was spectacular. He was an automatic pick in Chris Coleman’s side and seemed to save his most eye-catching performances for the big games. There was a stunning first goal for the club, a ridiculous volley against Chelsea that briefly levelled the scores in a wondrously open local derby against Jose Mourinho’s men, and – of course – the outrageous strike that rescued a point against Manchester United three minutes from the time. Fulham had more than matched Sir Alex Ferguson’s side that night in a display full of spirit and verve but nobody looked capable of beating Roy Carroll until Diop delivered a thunderbolt from Mark Pembridge’s innocuous looking pass and set off on that memorable run towards the Cottage. It holds a special place in my heart, having come as an especially well-timed birthday present.
It was obvious after such an immediate impact that Diop would become of the Cottage’s cult heroes. Famously, the cry of ‘shoot’ would ring out for years afterwards – even if he had barely crossed the halfway line. His goals were rather more prosaic after that, but he popped up with vital ones throughout his Fulham career. There was a header at Birmingham City and a gorgeous whipped free-kick against Norwich City on the final day of the season – he scored seven in total in his first year with the Whites and was easily the club’s player of the year. Those celebratory dances will live long in the memory too.
Diop was a pivotal figure on the field, breaking up play and providing protection for a defence that was sometimes brittle against the league’s larger lights, but he was just as important off the pitch too. His persona when not playing was very different to the one you saw on the television: he was warm, happy and a gentle soul. He took very seriously the idea of looking after the young players coming through the club’s academy, as you can see from the messages on social media this evening. The idea that someone as imposing as Diop wasn’t a fan of flying – and would frequently be holding hands with a club employee to settle his nerves as a plane took off or landed – seems prepostorous, but I’m told it is absolutely true.
There was a sense that Diop’s Fulham career never fully flourished. He struggled for both form and fitness towards the tail end of his time at Craven Cottage and was allowed to leave for Portsmouth by Lawrie Sanchez on transfer deadline day in 2007. The man himself certainly subscribed to that view, saying subsequently that he hadn’t felt ready to leave Fulham and was sad that he couldn’t say goodbye to the Cottage faithful. His subsequent career still saw plenty of highs, winning the FA Cup with Pompey and the Greek Cup with AEK Athens, as well as earning promotion back to the top flight with West Ham.
You’ll have your own memories of Diop in a Fulham shirt. Mine comes from a trip to Motspur Park when I was much younger. I was there to meet someone else but he noticed me in the car park. We’d never met before but he strode over with purpose, perhaps noticing that I had cerebral palsy and was struggling to walk that day. He offered his hand, flashed that wonderful smile and said, ‘Keep smiling, young man’. I told him I would and, even if it will be tough after today, I’ll be true to my word. After all, that small exchange – mundane as it may be – rather sums up the man.